The State of Agile – Derek Huether

Mastery-based Learning and the Paradox of the Certification

I started in Project Management some 15 years ago.

My goal, at the beginning, was to comply with all defined policies, processes, and procedures, while ensuring the project stayed within schedule, budget, and scope.  After a few years, I left this position and I started my own consulting company.  This radically changed my perspective of what was important.  Though most of my consulting was in hardware, my focus shifted toward satisfying the customer.  Upon returning to application development, I began managing software development projects for corporate and government agencies.  At first, I resorted back to my old ways, trying to manage everything through process and controls.  I sought out and obtained my Project Management Professional (PMP) credential.

I surprisingly discovered that customers really didn’t care how I managed the project, as long as they got what they wanted, when they wanted it, at the price they agreed to.

I started to go as lean as possible on documentation and processes, working with small co-located cross-functional teams.  The result was delivery of more value more often.  It was interesting to watch other project managers not have as much success, focusing more of their attention on the process than on their customers and products.  That’s about the time a colleague recommended I read Ken Schwaber’s book, Agile Project Management with Scrum.  As I read page after page, I realized I had been using basic agile practices and hadn’t even known it.  After signing the Agile Manifesto and embracing “formal” Scrum practices, I went on to become the Manager of Software Engineering at an online university.  Since then, I’ve gone on to be an advisor to a U.S. Government Agency Program Management Office (PMO).  Of those working in the PMO, I am one of many PMPs but I am the only Certified ScrumMaster.

I’m a guy, passionate about getting his customers what they want in the most cost-efficient, time-efficient, and effort-efficient ways possible.  I do what makes sense to me.  Additionally, I have spent the last two years coaching up-and-coming project managers (and leaders) looking to obtain a certification or credential while dispelling myths about Agile principles and practices.

How Agile has changed in terms of Ideology

It’s called mastery-based learning and the paradox of the certification.  What is the goal?  Are we trying to discover better ways to deliver value to our customers or are we just trying to get a piece of paper and a few extra letters after our names?  Some are pursuing the mastery of performance-based objectives versus learning-based objectives (ie. getting a passing score on a certification exam versus being a good manager or leader).  Let’s recognize the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  It’s called the Project Management Institute (PMI) and they have a credential called the PMP® (Project Management Professional).  I’m not putting down the PMI.  I am both a member, and as I mentioned earlier, a PMP credential holder.

PMI’s goal:

“Serve practitioners and organizations with standards that describe good practices, globally recognized credentials that certify project management expertise, and resources for professional development, networking and community.“

Unfortunately, hiring managers have leached onto the PMP credential, which should be understood as someone with an entry-level understanding of project management.  Instead, hiring managers and others have elevated the PMP to a level of perceived expert.  PMI does not support this but they don’t condone it either.  Many people get the PMP because their final objective is a credential, not to master the art of project management and leadership.  And this, I believe, is directly impacting how the Agile community works in its future.

Though I see organizations like the PMI and Scrum Alliance (SA) having members who actually want to master skills and deliver real value, certifications seem to be what motivates some people in the short term.  Which is more important?  Having a large membership base, having a large certification base, or having people who have mastered skills that deliver value?  Well, if you don’t get a large membership and certification base, how are you going to be that instrument of change?

Where is Agile Going

Soon, there will be a lot of movement in the Agile certification space.  The Scrum Alliance has their certifications, the International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile) will soon be offering memberships and certifications, and you may see further movement by PMI into the Agile space.  So, are future Agile certification objectives going to performance-based or learning-based?  Though you can not change the motivations of the people pursuing the certifications or credentials, those who are providing them have it within their power to steer applicants toward a road of mastery versus a dead end certification.

Scrum Alliance

From the October release of the Scrum News, I read the Scrum Alliance has selected Donna Farmer as the new Managing Director.  Farmer will lead the non-profit organization, working with the staff and Board of Directors to realize the organization’s vision and mission.  Lately, there seems to be some turbulence in the Scrum world, after Tobias Mayer resigned from his SA staff role as creative director and renounced his SA certifications of CSM, CSP, and CST.  He then wrote a scathing blog post on the whole series of events.  I empathize with Tobias and what he went through.  I empathize with the Scrum community, as it evolves and tries to navigate through constant change.  So, Donna Farmer has admitted that she is new to Scrum.  Though she is, should it matter?  I’m not saying Farmer is going to be a savior for the Scrum Alliance but I want to give her the benefit of the doubt.  There is a opportunity available to steer the Scrum certifications toward learning-based objectives, ensuring applicants are provided tools to help them in mastering their skills.


A recent addition to the Agile community is the International Consortium for Agile (ICAgile).  ICAgile is being spearheaded by none other than Dr. Alistair Cockburn, the man instrumental in creating and steering the field of Agile software development since its inception. He co-authored the original Manifesto for Agile Software Development and among other things, served on the board of the Agile Alliance, and designed the Crystal family of Agile methodologies.  Dr. Cockburn has consistently demonstrated leadership toward learning over mere certifications.  Let’s take a look at ICAgile’s published goal.

To foster thinking and learning around Agile methods, skills and tools. We understand the difficulty of balancing education and certification, so as an alternative to other certification programs, ICAgile certification is skills based and requires people to demonstrate they have learned both why (the value) and how (the mechanics) for a core set of skills.”

As a key goal, ICAgile will be focused toward learning-based objectives, ensuring applicants are provided tools to help them in mastering their skills.

Project Management Institute

Though PMI does not currently have an Agile certification, there was a huge Agile presence at the PMI North American Congress just a few weeks ago.  There was strong representation by the Agile Community of Practice and a lot of curiosity, and might I add ignorance, by the average Congress attendee.  I don’t find it surprising, considering there is a complete omission of the word “Agile” in PMI’s Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) version 4.0.  But, the PMBOK version 5 is in the works.  A new PMP credential exam is being release in August 2011.  What will happen to the Agile community if Agile is actually added to the PMBOK?  Will PMI modify the current PMP credential to include Agile or will it launch its own Agile credential?


I will conclude in saying, in order for the Agile community to continue to grow and keep true to the principles of the Agile Manifesto, certification programs should truly add value and assess the skill set as well as knowledge of the individual.  As stated on the ICAgile website:

“Is Certification important? Well that is a debatable topic that can take days and months to conclude. The fact is that for some people, in some cultures, and for some organizations certifications are important and have value; that is a fact.”

I see the Scrum Alliance, ICAgile, and PMI all working to advance Agile understanding, as it moves toward further adoption in the mainstream.  But, let us not forget the Agile Manifesto and 12 principles. Let us not forget to deliver value.

You can find Derek Huether at @derekhuether and blogging on

10 Replies to “The State of Agile – Derek Huether”

  1. I think the idea of “Agile certification” or alternatives to it are a red herring. Because the core of agile is a set of values and principles, you can’t really do much more than certify that someone knows them, and to some extent agrees with them. Beyond that there are Agile practices, that are not that difficult to begin using, and require experience to get better at. You could certify that someone does those practices at work, but I don’t think that is meaningful enough to go to the trouble, unless you accept the idea that certifications are mostly about paying money and having a certificate that can be used to impress HR people, but I think we should avoid going down that road.

    The Agile Alliance position on certification is “that employers should have confidence only in certifications that are skill-based and difficult to achieve.
    We also believe that employers should not require certification of employees.”

    I agree with that, but I can’t see how it is that meaningful to assess the level of someone’s skill with agile practices, isolated from their general skill with developing software. You either pair program or you don’t you either do TDD or you don’t, but how well you create software with those things comes down to things that are more general software development competence rather than say how many years you have been pair programming for. I think the agile practices are almost too easy to be a basis for certification, you are either lucky enough to work in a situation where you can spend 8 hours a day learning them from others, or you learn them on your own in your own time, or you don’t use them.

    That is why I am coming to the conclusion that looking for a good agile certification, or alternative to certification is less useful than say coming up with an alternative to a software developer certification, something that covers a little more than just whether someone happens to work for a company that does agile practices, and for how long.

    Something that covers all aspects of software development, so far the thing that appeals the most to me, that covers the things an alternative to certification should cover is The Programmer Competency Matrix. (

    Of course this post was more about project management than software development, and there some significant differences in the nature of those two disciplines. I think that someone who wants to have a management role in an agile software development effort rather than a technical one, is perhaps more justified in relying on formal education, or a commercial certification specific to the approach they intend to use, i.e. CSP in the case of a ScrumMaster or PO. (Although I think they too should be appropriately hard to achieve) Although I haven’t thought about that as much as for the technical case.

    1. Thanks for sharing! Certification is a deep issue that still has yet to be resolved cleanly. It seems like there is no ‘real’ adequate way to measure competency! Is certification justified?

    2. Kurt,
      Thank you so much for your comment. When it comes right down to it, I don’t care if a new hire has a degree or a certification. I want to know they have the capacity to learn, adapt, and deliver. I want to know they will integrate into a corporate culture. Unfortunately, hiring managers (gate keepers) don’t seem to be listening.

      Until we, as Agile practitioners, can educate hiring managers and many others in the industry on what is important and what is not, we’re going to see this behavior continue.

      When it comes to the Agile certifications, people seek them out for reasons other than to become better at their craft. They do it for the gate keepers.

      1. > They do it for the gate keepers.

        And this is the big mistake. By doing this we support the behavior — we become responsible for it. The only way to change the expectation is to stop meeting it, to stop complying.

        So, everyone in the world who cares about changing the corporate mindset: stop offering certificates as proof of your abilities. You are supporting the certificate profiteers and perpetuating the status quo. Think fresh, have courage.

  2. Great post and great points to think about.

    I’m ambivalent about PMI (or any other organization) having an Agile Project Manager certification – While I do think the PMP totally ignores agile as a set of practices, project management should be thought of much more broadly than what’s contained in the agile body of knowledge. Project management is a business discipline, not a development methodology. (yes, yes, so is agile.!!) But “agile” (as if you can define it singularly) is an approach to delivery, just as other methods are. PMI should do a better job of expressing this and in validating agile as an approach – but *any* approach should be covered by the PMBOK. I think PMI’s material is all sound and supports agile methods – but they do a poor job of presenting it so it can be interpreted (especially by novices) as anything other than waterfall.

    1. I think you hit on something very important. I think of a Manager as someone who controls people or things. I think of an Agilist or Agile Practitioner as anyone involved in the project that supports Agile or Lean approaches. PMI needs to do a much better job in educating members of widely accepted approaches. I’ve embraced Agile methods for 5 years and I saw the PMBOK v4 get published with no mention of Agile or Lean approaches. Though I respect PMI’s right to publish a PMBOK that speaks in general terms, people should not have to interpret it to garner support for a proven approach.

      I believe the time HAS come, when PMI will embrace Agile. But that should not be the end goal. Regardless of the organization, Agile needs to be recognized and embraced as a force to be reckoned with.

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